I live in a bubble.
More specifically, I live in a queer, lower-case-L liberal bubble. I often hear people refer to living in a bubble as a bad thing, and I do understand why. The bubble gives you a skewed view of what you think most people think. Talking about queer rights in my bubble doesn’t generally get met with debate—after all, the vast majority of queer people aren’t generally going to feel the need to play Devil’s Advocate over whether or not queer people should be granted equal rights and protections.
I’m not foolish enough to believe in the bubble. There are enough reminders on a near-daily basis that the bubble I live in isn’t the same as the world I live in (or even the city, or neighbourhood, or street).
Days like yesterday drive that home in no uncertain terms.
For those of you reading this from outside of Canada, we had a provincial election yesterday, which led to a majority government for the “Progressive” Conservative Party, and the premier is now Doug Ford. (For readers in the US, that’s like electing a governor of a state, more or less, and in this case, a Republican one with a terrible history of standing up for pretty much anyone other than the rich and white and straight.)
There are a lot of mitigating circumstances at play to this majority government. The biggest things is there is only one conservative option—the “Progressive” Conservatives—there are multiple options to the left of centre, the Liberals (who can generally be quite central), the New Democratic Party (who are more socialist) and the Green Party (who are small, but did get a win in Guelph). This splits the non-conservative vote often, and given how the ridings work and our first-past-the-post system, even though 59% of the votes weren’t for the PCs, they have 60% of the seats. It’s literally the opposite of what people voted for, from the popular vote point-of-view.
Which, I’m sure, sounds familiar to my U.S. readers.
I’m drifting a bit away from what I wanted to talk about today, which is actually what it’s like to be queer when your family makes it clear they’re not okay with being queer, but the election serves as a timely stage to work with: namely, I’m well aware that there are a lot of people out there—41% of voting Ontarians, say—who don’t consider queer people (or people with disabilities, or anyone not-like-them, really) to be worth more consideration than the vague promise of a tax cut of some kind, and cheap beer.
And that likely included my nephew.
I’ve talked about my family before many times, and I’ve talked about how, in writing, the inclusion of reconciliation plots is often done at the cost of realism and is incredibly over-represented as a plot in fiction to the point I feel it’s a detriment. But I think today it bears repeating, and updating, and some clarity about a choice I just made.
Growing up queer in my family was awful. My mother and father were casually racist, tossing around terms and slurs as amusements and jokes—and even as a kid I recognized this as “off.” My father enjoyed a good “poofter” joke (my family being British, although he eventually updated his language to “fag” and “faggot”). He made it very, very clear on many occasions how short I fell on his measurement of masculinity, generally with a skillful and sharp turn of phrase.
That’s something we had in common, it occurs to me know: we both always had the words on the tip of our tongue.
Otherwise, I was a quiet kid. A reader and a drawer, I had zero skill at most sports, generally only one or two good friends at a time, and liked science fiction and Dungeons & Dragons. He’d been a rugby player, a member of the Oxford rowing team, and made it perfectly clear he had no idea what to do with me, nor that I had any value to him beyond an achiever of good grades, which was at least something he could put forth as a quantitative measurement of success. I avoided him. A great deal of the time, he did the same, though not without time outs for endless litanies of my general failings. I was “a big girl’s blouse.” I was “a mother’s boy.” I was “a mess.” I was “pathetic.” I was “such a girl.”
My mother wasn’t quite as directed, though I grew up with a particular hatred of the phrase “you’re hopeless” as it came my way from her on a regular basis. My sister I tried to please, but she was five years older than me, generally popular, and really we had nothing that much in common—mostly she used me as a gopher to fetch her a pop from the basement as payment to be allowed to hang out with her, or as someone to ignore while she invited her boyfriend over when my parents were out.
I retreated into books, and my few good friends, and generally tried to keep my head down. After I was aware I was queer, it was worse. Knowing full well that my father thought it was sickening—I cannot tell you how many times that was stressed in my presence—and that the very notion he might have to give his queer workers any kind of leave or rights of any kind was beyond-the-pale and ridiculous, especially civil partner health coverage, because “it was their own damn fault they got sick in the first place,” I withdrew further, and tried to repress any sign he might see. It might be worth mentioning that my father was in charge of a large company, savvy in discourse, and face-to-face with anyone who belonged to a visible (or known invisible) minority he certainly knew how to speak. At my father’s funeral, a man he’d referred to with a racial slur nearly every time he’d spoken of him in front of me came up to me and said my father had always been a “very democratic man.” I wanted to tell him the truth. I didn’t.
By the time I was doing my last year of high school, a change of my father’s job situation meant my parents left. I lived with my sister long enough to graduate high school, and then I was heading to Ottawa for University.
Anyway. Long before my father’s death, things imploded with my family, and after a phone call where my father had made it perfectly clear where I stood (and to “bugger the hell off, faggot”), there were years of silence.
My sister, to her credit, did reach out to me when it happened to tell me I was “still her brother,” but I didn’t visit really, until she had married.
I was on my own.
Honestly? I didn’t really look back and it was the first, best years of my life as a queer person. It was terrifying, and I had to drop out of university and scramble for a place to live and it took me years to get my feet under me. I crafted a persona, so if anyone decided to cut me from their life, at least I knew, inside, that they didn’t actually know me. I tried not to ask anyone for help (which was so dumb, I cannot tell you) and I was damned lucky the bear community and the drag queens were there, and later people I met through the queer centre on campus. I got the job at the bookstore. I eventually scraped enough together to get a bachelor apartment of my own. Holidays sucked at first, of course, but I found chosen family soon enough and then they felt like celebrations again. Successes.
Hopeful, rather than hopeless. And despite some really, really awful moments and hate and an attack, I’d never felt better about myself.
It was healthier to not be around them. “Family matters” is a message hammered in from all angles, but when that family isn’t a good thing, that message doesn’t come with an asterisk to remind you that there are exceptions. But there are.
The birth of my nephew, and later my niece, was a turning point, though, and when my father died, it got easier and cemented the sense that it could be worth trying again. I started to make controlled contact after they were born, on my terms. Visiting for short times which always left me feeling awful, but in the hopes that it might be worth it to have access to my nephew and niece and—maybe—be a living, breathing example of how queer people aren’t less-than. My husband hated it when I visited, as I’d always come back less than when I’d left. There’d be some thing that was said, usually without any recognition from those involved that they’d even said anything wrong. I’d try. I’d try again. And again.
Fast-forward eighteen years or so, and…it didn’t work.
I’d like to think part of that is distance. And I didn’t visit (or have them visit me) often at all. Social media and texting and e-mails are one thing, but it started to become clear that I wasn’t gaining any ground. It became frustrating to watch my nephew, especially. He’d share memes, mostly. Seeing his name on my screen generally meant it was time to do a bit of debunking research, show him the links to actual information, and gently remind him that if something seemed succinct and pithy and aligned with his views immediately, that it was worth researching to see if it was factually correct, or was just speaking to a confirmation bias. My niece would talk about how we needed to take care of the homeless and veterans before we needed to take care of immigrants. Again, I tried to educate gently, with links and discussions.
But when my nephew’s memes shifted from things like gas prices and falsehoods about minimum wage to slams against men who weren’t “masculine” enough (often, of course, in the guise of patriotism for veterans), I started to get a sick feeling in my gut again. And then my niece started sharing “queer is a mental illness” memes.
That was this week, and that was it. I lost my temper, realized I was speaking to a sixteen year old and a nineteen year old and they were old enough to know better by now. I’d had enough, and I wasn’t polite about it. I warned my mother I’d done it, and my mother defended them, and I realized I’d done the same damn thing all over again.
I’d let myself place value with people who didn’t value people like me. Again.
If you have queer friends who aren’t in contact with their families, don’t push them. Don’t say things like, “you only have the one family!” Don’t tell them they should try, or they’ll regret things left unsaid. The day before my father died, he ranted and raved at me (and all the nurses nearby) very clearly how he felt about his “faggot son.” To this day, I wish I hadn’t gone back to see him before he died. I know he was basically stoned out of his mind on a mix of medication and oxygen deprivation, but it certainly didn’t make the things he said untrue to his beliefs.
It’s possible my nephew and my niece might change. It is. Maybe they’ll meet someone who’ll change their mind. But right now? That person isn’t going to be me. It’s not my job to drag them there just because I’m related to them.